Urban hiking started centuries ago as a necessity: If you wanted to go somewhere, you had to walk. "Hiking" wasn't for fun. Then, as most people used cars or public transportation to get around in the city, they regarded "hiking" as a pleasant activity to be done somewhere else, in a natural area.
But over the last 10 years, more people have been discovering the pleasures of taking a hike in their cities.
Dan Koeppel helped popularize the concept of urban hiking with his article in the June 2004 issue of Backpackermagazine. As Koeppel tells it, one evening when he was rushing to drive 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) out of the city for a hike before darkness fell, he realized he could skip the commute and hike where he was, in Los Angeles. Koeppel was training for mountain climbing, and he chose some of the many city-owned outdoor staircases for his urban hike. (More about that on the next page.)
Since Koeppel's article, many other magazines and newspapers have featured stories about urban hiking. Cities have promoted parks and greenways as urban hiking sites. Meet-up groups offer urban hikes as social events, and there are local groups dedicated to urban hiking. Established hiking clubs have added more urban hikes to their schedules. Museums include urban hikes in their activities.
In many ways, urban hiking is just hiking, but in a city. There are variations on the theme: Some urban hikes follow sidewalks and streets, taking in architecture, historic sites and other manmade attractions. It's like sightseeing, only with more walking and attention to lesser-known places. Other hikes get out into nature, in parks and gardens within the city rather than at a distance.
You can set out on your own with maps and maybe a GPS. Or you can contact your local parks and recreation department. Search the Internet for hiking groups, and for information about hikes on sites such as Yelp.com or mapmyrun.com (it works for walks, too).
Many people, like Koeppel, hit the sidewalks and trails as a way to get exercise without paying for a gym. There are other reasons for the growing popularity of urban hiking:
- It's environmentally friendly and low-cost. Urban hikers don't have to travel long distances before they walk.
- It's educational. If you live in a city, that's part of your environment. Hiking lets you see it up close. Most cities have a wealth of places to interest anyone who takes the time to visit them.
- It's easy. On most urban hikes, you're never far from a store or restaurant. You don't have to carry a lot of equipment. Your ID, cell phone, a little money and a water bottle may be all you need. Sidewalks make it easier to include people with strollers or in wheelchairs. Just make sure you wear sneakers or some other comfortable shoes.
- It's social. Because it's close to home, urban hiking is popular with meet-up groups. You can visit a restaurant or bar after the trek.
Just about any city has urban hiking possibilities. Washington, D.C., has great hikes along the National Mall or in parks such as Rock Creek. It might surprise you to learn that Las Vegas, Nev., has been featured in both National Geographic and Backpacker magazines as a good hiking city! Keep reading to learn about five others that are among the best.
Writer and adventurer Dan Koeppel really started something when he decided to climb some of the urban staircases in Los Angeles instead of driving miles out of town for a hike. His article in the June 2004 Backpacker magazine, "I Climbed Los Angeles," helped popularize urban hiking. The staircases are there because the old neighborhoods in L.A. were built on hillsides, and developers built sidewalks with steps so people could get to the houses they built. This was in the days before everyone had a car and the need for a place to park it. Koeppel expanded his interest in staircases into a 16.2 mile (26.1 kilometer) hike that includes 4,182 steps – many of them steep – and the sidewalks that connect them. The route rises 7,455 feet (2.13 meters) in elevation and includes vistas of most of the famous sights in and around L.A. [source: Cromley].
Many people have tried to replicate all or part of Koeppel's route, and there is now an annual two-day free event, The Big Parade, that covers about 17 miles (27.36 kilometers) and nearly 100 staircases between downtown L.A. and the Hollywood Sign.
But hiking in Los Angeles doesn't have to be as strenuous as climbing steep staircases. There are plenty of easy hiking routes that show you L.A. up close.
Griffith Park is one of the city's most popular flat hiking areas. Covering more than 4,000 acres, this area in the Los Feliz neighborhood near the Santa Monica Mountains is one of the largest urban wilderness parks in the United States. The city maintains 53 acres (214,483 square meters) of trails, but warns that hikers may encounter coyotes, foxes, rattlesnakes and other wildlife. A favorite route is from the parking lot of the Griffith Observatory to the top of Mount Hollywood.
If you want to absorb culture while hiking, the Architecture and Design Museum of Los Angeles offers urban hikes to such areas as Little Tokyo, MacArthur Park and the Downtown Historic Core, guided by poet Mike Sonksen, who performs his works along the route.
New York City
If urban hiking -- heavy on the "urban" -- is what you're after, New York City offers a wealth of city walking. Map your own route and walk beneath towering skyscrapers, through gems of small city parks and along the waterfront, crossing bridges and scoring spectacular views of such landmarks as the Statue of Liberty. Manhattan may be crowded, but there's much to see and plenty of sidewalks.
Central Park, with 250 acres (101.17 hectares) of lawn and 136 wooded acres (55 hectares), offers several hiking options. There are long-distance routes of 6.1 miles (9.8 kilometers), 5.2 miles (8.37 kilometers) or 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers), and lots of shorter options. All in all, there are 58 miles (93 kilometers) of hiking trails in Central Park, some in the 90-acre (36.4-hectare) Ravine, and others in the 38-acre (15.4-hectare) Ramble, which has woods and wild gardens. You can also try a free, guided walking tour if you like.
New York's varied boroughs and their neighborhoods lend themselves to interesting hikes. Brooklyn, for example, has Prospect Park , Greenwood Cemetery, neighborhoods of historic brownstones and lots of great bars and restaurants for relaxing after the walk.
In the Bronx, the Bronx River has been opened for canoeing, hiking and biking. A loop trail along the river near Burke Bridge, close to the New York Botanical Garden, is about an hour-long walk. The trail passes through the Bronx River Forest, one of the oldest in the city.
Any urban hike in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood should include a walk atop the High Line. The High Line is a city-owned park – a walkway and botanical gardens – built atop black steel columns on an abandoned elevated freight line. It stretches for about a mile and a half (2.4 kilometers), giving unusual views of buildings and the Hudson River beyond.
You could probably find anything you'd ever want in an urban hike in San Francisco.
Want heart-pumping exercise? The city is hilly and, like Los Angeles, has lots of old city-owned staircase/sidewalks to take you up those steep slopes. Hike up the Filbert Steps of Telegraph Hill, or the famously twisty Lombard Street.
Want something a little less strenuous? There are beach trails (with fewer hills) along the San Francisco Bay. Want to experience nature? How do groves of redwoods and eucalyptus trees inside city parks sound, along with an abundance of public gardens?
As urban hiking has become more popular, the city of San Francisco has been working to restore and expand its approximately 30 miles (48.3 kilometers) of city trails. Popular hikes include short distances such as a leisurely stroll along Lobos Creek Trail in the Presidio park, or the mile and a half (2.4 kilometers) across (and then back, if you want) the Golden Gate Bridge, with great views of Alcatraz, the city skyline, Angel Island and the Pacific Ocean. If you want to take a longer, more strenuous excursion, then hike the entire 10-and-a-half miles (16.9 kilometers) of the California Coastal Trail.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area includes trails in the Lands End area at the northwestern corner of the city with spectacular views of the water, shipwrecks and wildflower-covered hills. Hike through the Sutro Historic District with its gardens and see the ruins of the famous Sutro Baths, a 19th-century swimming pool complex. Your route might wind up at the historic Cliff House, a restaurant built in 1863, where it's often easy to watch seals on the rocks below.
The city and various organizations provide information about other hikes that will take you past such places as Chinatown, Fort Mason, outdoor murals and historical sites commemorating the 1906 earthquake. Just remember that when the fogs roll in, you won't see much, and that summer in San Francisco can be chilly.
Urban hiking is as natural as soaking up history in Philadelphia. In many cities, most people get around by car or public transportation. In Philadelphia, many residents have known for years what the travel books and Web sites tell tourists: The best way to experience Philadelphia is to walk.
Many of the top tourist attractions are in the Old City downtown area, close enough together to make a great hike. If you haven't toured such attractions as the Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center, various museums and the places where Benjamin Franklin lived and worked, be warned: Do in-depth sightseeing sometime other than when you really want to hike. You could easily spend a couple of hours at several of these destinations. Hiking is a different activity, but it can be a wonderful experience to trek past so much history. The streets form a grid, making it easy to find your way, and the city helps out with lots of pedestrian-friendly signs.
The refurbished Society Hill neighborhood, near the Delaware River, offers the opportunity to hike past historic homes where people still live. If you want more modern scenery, you can hike Rittenhouse Square Park and the several blocks of upscale restaurants and stores that surround it.
Rittenhouse Square is only one of 63 parks that make up the Fairmount Park system -- the 9,200 acres (3723.11 hectares) of city parks that help make Philadelphia one of the best urban hiking cities anywhere. There are at least 215 miles (346 kilometers) of trails in Fairmount Park, with park areas accessible to every part of the city. The trails cover the gamut from sidewalks to dirt paths through woods or along streams. The Wissahickon Gorge, with 57 miles (91.7 kilometers) of trails looping amid forests and wildlife, is a great escape from the city – within the city. Those who use the trails are required to get a yearly permit, which is free to city residents.
There's one great warning about hiking in Phoenix: This is the desert. Even though there are terrific trails within the city, it's risky to set out when the temperatures are hovering around triple digits. The sun can be unforgiving: If you want to hike in the middle of summer, get up early or set out in the evening, when there is some shade. And take plenty of water.
But there's all the rest of the year to enjoy a hike along the many trails to be found in Phoenix, and the weather is usually sunny.
You can do the sort of urban hiking that involves sidewalks and neighborhoods in Phoenix. There's a mile-and-a-half walking tour of historic downtown Phoenix, with a guide available from the city's Historic Preservation Office. The route takes you by a number of 1920s-era buildings and railroads.
Through the year, various groups organize urban walks with themes such as wine-tasting or the arts. But the big attraction that has earned Phoenix attention in such publications as National Geographic is its parks. The city has preserved large tracts of desert and mountains, and it opens them to hiking. South Mountain Park, covering nearly 17,000 acres (6,880 hectares), is the largest city park in the United States [source: Phoenix ASAP]. and has 58 miles (93.3 kilometers) of trails. Three mountain ranges are within the park, and there's plenty of desert flora and fauna.
South Mountain is joined by other city parks. Nearly 26,000 acres (10,522 hectares) within the city limits are in parks and preserves, offering more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) of trails. There are trails to suit just about any taste. You can climb a mountain, or you can take the kids on a paved nature trail at Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area, where many species of birds and small animals enjoy the Salt River. Phoenix's desert and mountain habitats offer an unparalleled urban hiking experience.
Mountains are definitely not the only thing worth climbing. Learn more about the urban climbers scrambling up cranes, skyscrapers and even Corcovado.
Author's Note: 5 Best Cities for Urban Hiking
The most important discovery I made while researching this article was that I am an urban hiker. I don' t live in an urban area, so that's not how I do most of my walking. But whenever I visit a city, I tend to do a lot of walking. I've discovered great hikes in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk, Va., and near the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. I love to take the Metro to the Smithsonian station in D.C. and hike for hours past the monuments and museums. Urban hiking, I learned, isn't an activity only for some sort of expert.
Another thing I learned is that it's a rare city that doesn't have interesting places to hike. All you have to do is look and ask. The five cities listed here have outstanding hiking possibilities, but others have a lot to offer as well.
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